Robert M Gagne is best known for his nine steps for instructional design. He took an interest in the information processing view of learning and memory in The Conditions of Learning (1965), which outlined his learning theory. An article Learning Hierarchies in 1968 was followed by Domains of Learning in 1972. In these texts he developed his five categories of learning and a universal method for instruction defined in his nine instructional steps.
Five categories of learning
Gagne’s theory has five categories of learning:
1. Intellectual Skills: Demonstrated by classifying things and problem solving
2. Cognitive strategies: Demonstrated by their use and appropriate application
3. Verbal information: Demonstrated by stating the information accurately
4. Motor skills: Demonstrated by physical performance
5. Attitudes: Demonstrated by preferring options
This was an attempt to move beyond and widen Bloom’s tripartite distinction: Cognitive (knowledge) Psychomotor (skills) and Affective (attitude), with a taxonomy that focuses on real world activities, rather than abstractions.
Nine instructional steps
But he is better known for his single method of instruction that can be applied to all five of his categories of learning. This instructional process was to be the recipe for good instructional design. You were expected to move through them, step by step.
1. Gaining attention: Get the learner into an expectant state
2. Stating the objective: Get the learner to understand what they will be able to do as a result of the instruction
3. Stimulating recall of prior learning: Get the learner to appreciate that they posses existing relevant knowledge
4. Presenting the stimulus: Expose the learner to the content
5. Providing learning guidance: Get the learner to understand the content
6. Eliciting performance: Get the learner to demonstrate what they have learned
7. Providing feedback: Inform the learner about their performance
8. Assessing performance: Reinforce the learning
9. Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts: Get the learner to indulge in varied practice and to generalise the new capability
‘Gaining attention’ is often reduced to clichéd ice breakers or overlong animations in online learning and rarely a truly relevant and engaging event. In ‘Stating the objective’ the learner is often presented with a dull list of objectives (At the end of this course you will…). There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of a learning experience and not a dull list of objectives. This works against the attention and arousal, necessary for learning. Stimulating recall of prior learning is fine but not if the content is truly new to the learner who has no real past experience to draw on and ‘Presenting the stimulus’ betrays behaviourist tendencies. However, ‘Providing learning guidance’, ‘Eliciting performance’, ‘Providing feedback’ and ‘Assessing performance’ are all sound strategies, as is ‘Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts’. In practice, much of this is reduced to exposition.
Learning and instructional designers often use Gagne’s nine steps and there is much to commend if it is seen as a checklist. However, it can be argued that his instructional ladder leads to predictable and over-structured learning experiences, a straightjacket that strips away any sense of build and wonder. It is also inappropriate for all learning strategies, as he claimed. Scenario-based learning, many types of simulation, games pedagogies and sophisticated adaptive learning are just a few techniques that do not fit readily into this step-by-step recipe.
Gagne has influenced much of what has appeared as self-paced online learning over the last 30 years. This has served designers well for simple self-paced online learning, but the step-by-step approach is now seen as inappropriate for alternative informal learning, especially informal learning and more advanced pedagogies. Some see this approach as producing formulaic, often uninspiring and over-long courses.
Gagne was one an early learning theorists who provided some simple and practical advice on instructional design, which in some way accounts for his success. Although his instructional model is not applicable to all types of learning, and can be seen as a restriction, he brought a certain method to design which produced lots of solid learning experiences and content.
Gagne, R. M. (1965). The Conditions of Learning, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Gagné, R. M. (1970). Basic studies of learning hierarchies in school subjects. Berkeley,Calif: University of California.
Gagné, R. M., Richey, R., (2000) ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology., International Board of Standards for Training, Performance, and Instruction.